What Were Gene Roddenberry’s Religious Beliefs? How Did They Influence on ‘Star Trek’?

NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images Brazilian mural artist Eduardo Kobra's recent work shows children wearing face masks, bearing symbols of different religions (L to R) Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism.

Star Trek features a future where science is king. But some fans wonder how religion fits into this futuristic vision for humanity. Fans also have questions about the religious beliefs of creator Gene Roddenberry. Fans of the franchise know that Roddenberry had two very different types of wedding ceremonies in his life. What were his beliefs, and did they change over time? Here’s what we know about Gene Roddenberry’s personal religious beliefs, as well as a rundown on the role of religion in the fictional Star Trek universe. Spoilers ahead for various Star Trek shows and films, as well as one Trek documentary.

Gene Roddenberry Was Raised Southern Baptist

According to the Herald Democrat, Roddenberry was born into a Southern Baptist family in El Paso, Texas. However, when Roddenberry married Majel Barrett, the two opted for a ceremony that was not part of the Baptist tradition (more on that later). In 2019, the Hollywood Reporter referred to Roddenberry as a “secular humanist”. For fans of the series, the varying details of how Rodenberry’s personal views on religion may have evolved are all too scant. However, it does appear he grew up to have religious views that were likely different from both of his parents.

It’s been verified that Roddenberry survived a Pan Am plane crash in 1947. In the Oatmeal’s famous webcomic about the Pan Am disaster, the author speculated that Roddenberry “wanted to do something different with his life” after the crash.

Surviving a near-death experience, or NDE, is thought to have the potential to change a person in deep, fundamental ways. This phenomenon was explored in the Journal of Religion and Health. The publication featured an article entitled Near-Death Experiences and Religion: A Further Investigation.

The authors of the paper found “no relationship was found between religious orientation prior to the NDE and the depth of the NDE. However, a significant correlation was found between the depth of the NDE and a subsequent increase both in the importance of religion and in religious activity.” In other words, “deep” near-death experiences can increase the importance of religion in someone’s life. Perhaps surviving that plane crash gave Roddenberry a reason to think more often, or more critically, about what happens to us after death.

In a different study on near-death experiences, conducted in a multi-religious hospital setting, the authors found that “persons with theistic religious beliefs reported more NDEs than those with non-theistic religious beliefs,” an indicator that people raised with religious beliefs might be more likely to have a near-death experience.

An interesting note from the same study: the type of religion a person follows may impact their ability to have (or recall) a near-death experience. As they explain it: “Patients of theistic religions (Christianity, Islam and Hinduism) reported significantly more NDEs compared to patients from the non-theistic religious group (Buddhism).”

Roddenberry Had a Buddhist-Shinto Wedding in Japan

According to the official Star Trek bio of Roddenberry’s wife, Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, the couple were wed in 1969. The event was a “traditional Buddhist-Shinto ceremony” that took place in Japan. The couple wore traditional Japanese clothing.

According to Japan Guide, a traditional Japanese wedding usually takes place at a Shinto Shrine. “In the ceremony, the couple is purified, drink sake, and the groom reads the words of commitment. At the end of the ceremony, symbolic offerings are given to the kami (Shinto deities)”. However, this style of commitment ceremony was not the only type of wedding Roddenberry had during the course of his life.

Trek News notes that Gene Roddenberry was married before he tied the knot with Majel Barrett. Roddenberry’s first wife was named Eileen Anita Rexroat. On pages 54 and 55 of Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry, author David Alexander noted that Roddenberry’s first marriage to Eileen was a chapel ceremony. The wedding was held at Kelly Field, San Antonio, in 1942. The officiant was Chaplain George W. Shardt. At the time, Roddenberry was serving in the US Army Air Corps, and trained at Kelly Field.

Roddenberry’s Son Issued a Statement About His Father & God

Rod Roddenberry, the son of Gene Roddenberry, went on the record in 2017 about the personal religious beliefs of his father.

“To label things, my father was most certainly a Humanist,” Rod Roddenbery said of his late father in his Facebook post, embedded above. “I can tell you for certain that my father was as close to a true Atheist towards the end of his life as could be considered.”

What Is Humanism? What Is a ‘Humanist’?

Is “Humanism” a religion? It’s a bit complicated, but perhaps most accurate to think of humanism as a philosophy.

The website for the American Humanist Association has a variety of definitions for humanism, one of which is attributed to The Humanist Society of Western New York. The definition argues that humanism is “a joyous alternative to religions that believe in a supernatural god and life in a hereafter.”

Roddenberry gave an interview to the Humanist magazine, which originally appeared in print in 1991. That interview shed light on Roddenberry’s early exposure to religion, through his father.

“I was born into a supernatural world in which all my people– my family– usually said, ‘That is because God willed it,’ or gave other supernatural explanations for whatever happened,” Roddenberry told the publication. He continued, “A great deal of my early training was due to my father who, mysteriously, never showed up in church…He felt that it was good for me to go to church but be damned careful of what the preachers say.”

Roddenberry Did Joke About the Bible

In a Facebook post, Rod Roddenberry shared an amusing recording of his father. Rod Roddenberry described the context for the audio above as follows: “he [Gene Roddenberry] jokingly shares the type of notes a Hollywood writer might get from a network executive – if he were to submit the Bible as his script/story.” Rod Roddenberry shared this file as an example of Gene Roddenberry’s sensibilities and humor around religious topics.

In a similar vein, NME reports that in an early version of the script for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was written by Roddenberry, there was a pivotal scene that involved Captain Kirk punching out an alien who had taken the form of Jesus Christ, which can certainly be read as a conflcit between science and religion. Later in Trek film history, in the climax of Star Trek V, Captain Kirk famously quips, “What does God need with a starship?” as he begins to realize that the “God” he just met is an alien.

Religion Is a Complicated Subject for ‘Star Trek’

There is an idea among Star Trek fans and insiders that religion has no place on Star Trek, or on Starfleet ships. While some of the franchise’s producers appear to have anti-religious stances, it’s not fair to say that religion isn’t present in the world of Star Trek. After all, elements of religion have been featured since the earliest days of the series.

In the original Star Trek series, there is an episode that shows Captain Kirk in a chapel on the Enterprise. Kirk is seen officiating a wedding between two members of his crew in the episode Balance of Terror. However, its not clear how religious the ceremony is meant to be, in part because Kirk is interrupted before the ceremony can be completed. Before he is cut off by a siren, Kirk says the following in his role as the officiant, according to IMDB’s quoted transcript.

“Since the days of the first wooden vessels, all shipmasters have had one happy privilege, that of uniting two people in the bonds of matrimony. And so, we are gathered here today with you, Angela Martine, and you, Robert Tomlinson, in the sight of your fellows, and in accordance with our laws and our many beliefs…”

Shortly after saying the above, the ceremony is interrupted and Kirk must attend to a crisis. But, based on a few details in his speech, it appears that this ceremony was intended to be non-religious, but respectful of those with religious beliefs. Kirk references his ability to marry people as being a privilege of “shipmasters” without making note of any god or gods. Still, Kirk’s references to “our many beliefs” seems indicative that those serving in Starfleet were not a monoculture, at least when it comes to some beliefs like religion.

One writer for Star Trek: Discovery made headlines back in 2017 when she made a statement about the place of God in the fictional world of Star Trek. Entertainment Weekly had reporters on the set of Discovery, where they captured the following candid moment between an actor and writer Kirsten Beyer.

The director halts the action and Lorca, played by British actor Jason Isaacs of Harry Potter fame, steps off the stage. The episode’s writer, Kirsten Beyer, approaches to give a correction on his “for God’s sakes” ad lib.

“Wait, I can’t say ‘God’?” Isaacs asks, amused. “I thought I could say ‘God’ or ‘damn’ but not ‘goddamn.’”

Beyer explains that Star Trek is creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a science-driven 23rd-century future where religion basically no longer exists.

“How about ‘for f—’s sake’?” he shoots back. “Can I say that?”

“You can say that before you can say ‘God,’ ” she dryly replies.

Over the years, some Star Trek insiders have made their personal feelings on religion clear. For example, producer and writer Brannon Braga worked on multiple Trek series and some of the Star Trek feature films. He also spoke at the International Atheists Conference in 2006. In his speech, Braga told the assembled group that Star Trek is “a vision of a world where religion has been vanquished and reason drives our hearts to explore ourselves more deeply. It is a template for a world that every single one of us in this room longs for. And in that regard, it is an atheistic mythology.”

Braga is not alone. Tuscon.com once reported that former Star Trek production assistant Susan Sackett “travels the country talking to secular humanist groups about the movement’s concepts, often tying them into Star Trek.” In speaking with the publication, Sackett confirmed that Roddenberry introduced her to the concept of humanism by giving her a copy of Asimov’s Guide to the Bible to read.

The other side of the coin are the Star Trek fans who do find religious meaning, however unintended by the show’s creators, within many episodes of the long-running franchise. One such example is The Gospel According to Star Trek Podcast.

In a related example, Inverse interviewed Presbyterian minister and Star Trek fan Michael Poteet, who sees no conflict between the science-focused themes of Star Trek and living a religious life.

“When I draw Christian parables from Star Trek, I acknowledge I’m seeing things the authors and actors probably didn’t intend,” the minister stated to Inverse. “But authorial intention only goes so far once a work of art is unleashed upon the world, and I believe God is free to speak using whatever media God chooses, even a secular science fiction show.”

Some ‘Trek’ Writers Wrote a Non-Canon Story About Why Religion Was Bad for the Federation

In the minds of at least a few Star Trek writers, there appears to be a belief that religion had to be stamped out for the sake of galactic peace. This belief is showcased in a recent documentary.

The 2019 documentary What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine features a number of writers from the series. They reunite, and plot out what the next season of the show could have been like, had there been an eighth season. While the storyline created by the writers isn’t considered canon Trek, the ideas sprang from the minds of writers who created the canon of the series back in the 1990s. This gives it an air of legitimacy among some fans.

In the documentary, a major plot point of the “season that never was” revolves around the secretive agents of Section 31, who have a plan to manipulate the Bajoran people into joining the Federation. This ties back to the show’s first season, when the whole reason Sisko was sent to Deep Space Nine was to convince Bajor to join up.

“I think the plan of Section 31 is, this is the example to them, in their way of thinking, why religion had to disappear from Earth,” writer and producer Ira Steven Behr pitches in the documentary. “‘Cuz religion separates you from other people. So we have to kill the Bajoran religion.”

Fellow writer Ronald D. Moore chimes in: “Section 31’s plan is, so if you destroy the wormhole and prophets simultaneously, shut down the gate, then suddenly we’ll be the big players in town again.”

Moore went on the record about his personal religious beliefs in 2008, when Wired asked if the writer was religious. His response: “I’m a recovering Catholic. At one point I looked into various Eastern religions, and now I’ve settled into a sort of agnosticism.”

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